(Sermon) Only Hunger: avoid these during fasting

hunger vs fasting

Matthew 6:16-18

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

I don’t know if you guys know Screwtape letters by C. S. Lewis.  The book is structured as correspondence between two demons.  Senior demon Screwtape is the uncle and his nephew Wormwood is the junior demon.  Wormwood is still a rookie demon so he asks for tips about tempting humans.  So Screwtape writes back to Wormwood and that’s basically the whole book.  In one of the letters Screwtape recounts a “close call” of possibly losing his patients to his Enemy (Please keep in mind that since it is a demon writing, Enemy refers to God and Father refers to Satan and patient refers to human beings):

Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already halfway to the door.

Last week, I preached about the benefits of going on fasting and one of the benefits was precisely the breaking of the power of the ordinary.  The day to day mundane tasks that we carry out thoughtlessly can and DO, in fact, hold us slave to them – causing us to be dull, insensitive and even blinded to the fact that God the creator and redeemer sustains us moment by moment.  Having created us from “ex nihilo” (means out of nothing), God needs to continually sustain us otherwise we cease to exist.  Then just by the fact that we are able to breathe and live and eat for joy we ought to be thankful to God.

Then Fasting also serves as a means through which we are reminded and therefore become grateful to God’s day to day, ordinary provisions.

Fasting, as you have heard last week, has many benefits for Christians but it is not without its abuse and risk.  As I stated last week, fasting without God in mind, can anger God.  So then what do we need to watch out for, what do we need to do?  We get the hint from our Lord Jesus Christ.

1:  In the first place, we can figure out wrong pharisaic fasting practice during Jesus’ days from today’s passage.  Wrong fasting consisted of:

  • Disfigurement of themselves during fasting
  • Foregoing washing their faces and anointing their heads with oil

Jesus says that only hypocrites do these in order to show others that they are fasting.  Let me provide some details so you can understand what’s happening here.  Pharisees were the religious leaders of Israel at the time and many of them fasted twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays – because they teach that Moses went up to receive the laws on a Thursday and came down on Monday).

Under normal circumstances, Jewish people groomed themselves before appearing in the public as any normal cultured people would.  They will trim their beards, change their clothes and wash their faces.  Today’s equivalent of the act of pouring oil over their heads is washing their hair with shampoo.  Back in those days the oils were used to bath (it helps to get rid of dirt off the skin) as well as relieving dry scalp on your head.  So when one is not doing any of these, then they will appear very distressed as if they are under stress or they are mal-nutritioned for number of days as would be the case if they were fasting for many days.

Now Jesus’ problem with all of these is this: when they want to appear as if they are fasting and when they want to appear distressed then their primary concern is most likely their social statuses and not God.  Social status now as well as back then represents power.  It is no wonder that people crave after it.  So in short, many Pharisees were fasting all for wrong reasons.  Last week I said that fasting without God in mind only angers God and we saw that from the words of Prophet Zechariah.  When people are going on fasting because they want to show others that they are fasting and therefore seen as religiously advanced then they have very little room for God.  In fact, they have no room for God.  It is either you fill your heart with yourself or with God – one or the other.  Neither of them wants to share your heart therefore they don’t.  When the motivation for fasting is not for humbling or dedicating or disciplining yourself before God then you are in danger of just showing off.

Another danger of fasting for the sake of showing others is that it becomes an occasion on which you judge others and in turn you may risk losing your friends.  When someone wants to appear athletic, most likely they are not athletic.  If they were genuinely athletic then they wouldn’t have the need or the desire to “appear” athletic since they will naturally appear as such.  Athletic is what they are naturally!  So when someone wants to appear religious through the exercise of fasting, they are most likely NOT concerned about God all that much but with their empty hearts they judge others.  Interestingly Jesus tells a parable involving two individuals and one mentions fasting:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

Did you notice that the Pharisee said “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”?  When one’s heart is empty of God and goes onto fasting in order to appear religious, this is what end up happening.  You end up thanking a god called “yourself” for not being like others who don’t fast.  With that judgmental heart, how could one keep all his friends?  Not only you have angry God, you also have angry friends when fasting is practiced just to show off and you judge others because of that.

2: Secondly, if fasting becomes an end in itself, it is useless and counter-productive.  If you are fasting to lose weight then call it what it is and just get on a diet.  Don’t accompany fasting with any other purpose.  Worship is an end in itself in that we express our adoration for God for the sake of doing it.  Not in order to get something out of him or earn favours from him but just to love Him, period.

In contrast, fasting is NOT an end in itself in that fasting alone is useless.  It must be accompanied by prayer, which is to say there has to be specific purpose in your fasting.  Either God revealed your addiction or spiritual stronghold that you need to get rid of it in your life or at least be very disciplined about it then sure it is a good occasion to get on fasting and pray over it.  But never think that simply skipping meals for a day or two will get you what you want without prayer and without much heart for God.

3: The season of Lent is already under way and some of us have begun our limited fasting.  We still have entire March to go and I still like to invite you to at least limited form of fasting only if you are convinced that you are in a spiritual slumber and have identified areas where you are being stifled.  Some of you are losing so many hours on youtube/facebook/League of Legend or any other form of online gaming.  But at the same time, I want to warn you that do this only if you want to mature spiritually or if you have that desire to please God, so if your heart is itching away at you, by all means get on that fasting, free yourself so that you can pray before God.  This is the spiritual act that God is pleased with.

 

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(Sermon) Beyond Hunger: Benefits of Fasting

fastingTitle: Beyond Hunger: Benefits of fasting

Scripture: Zechariah 7:1-6; Joel 2:12

Date: Feb 17, 2013

 (Zechariah 7:1-6)

 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat theLord by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”

 Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?

 (Joel 2:12)

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

My earliest memory of Jesus from child hood came from a casual play time at the Roman Catholic church I was attending at the time.  I was grade 1 or 2 at the time.  It just happens that I was around the church’s bible study teachers and one of them randomly asked “Do you know how many Jesus fasted in the desert?”  There were many other kids who could’ve answered but me being an obnoxious kid had to rush my answer without thinking carefully.  “400 days!!”  she smiled at me cheerfully then she said “no, Jesus did not fast for 400 days but only 40 days.”  When I said 400 days, I wasn’t able to relate but when she said 40 days, somehow, I was able to related and I remember thinking “it must have been hard… Jesus, what a man!”  Believe or not, that is my earliest memory with the name Jesus.  It was about Jesus fasting for 40 days and I praised him for enduring such painful task.

Many of us are not all that familiar with fasting and it appears that not many Korean EM churches are encouraging fasting.  It appears as if they are afraid that too much emphasis on fasting might make them look like “too religious” or “too legalistic” that it will turn people off and they will never return but the truth is that fasting always had a great part of Christian tradition and in the scriptures we find many places where people either practice or teach a lesson on fasting – Jesus included.

But if you read the scripture with one eye open, you will notice that there is tremendous appreciation for food – many Israelite feasts and festivities were celebrated with food and the food laws were God given.  We also see Jesus and his disciples eating frequently at banquets, celebrations, feasts and of course with each other.  What was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before starting his way to the Cross and what was the first thing that Jesus did in John’s Gospel when some of the disciples who went out fishing came back to the shore with net full of fish? He ate.

So if the scripture has tremendous appreciation for food AND sharing of it is a sign of intimacy, why the fast?  What does it do for us (not for God) that appreciation for food AND foregoing of it are equally celebrated as important human activity? For today’s sermon, let me highlight few benefits from physiological perspective as well as spiritual.

1: For the first point, we have to keep in mind that in the scriptures fasting is ALWAYS accompanied by prayer.  Let’s look at verses 5 and 6 of Zechariah:

‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?

This means fasting is never an end in itself.  We fast prayerfully and all prayers have direction – to God.  Therefore, fasting must be also directed to God.

In fact, there is no such thing as fasting apart from prayer or to say it another way, fasting exists for the sake of prayers.  Having that understanding, we need to turn our thinking into how fasting helps our prayers rather than our bodies.

First and most obvious of all, fasting helps prayers in that empty stomach rather than full stomach helps us to stay focused on praying.  Have you heard of post-prandial somnolence? That’s the medical term for what we call “Itis”.  It happens when we have food (especially too starchy or sugary food) and the blood rushes down to digestive system in order to handle all the food that was ingested.  After having a nice, hearty meal on a warm afternoon and you had very active evening the night before that you are short on sleep.  When 1 o’clock or 1:30 o’clock hits after your hearty meal, you are going to feel the “need” for sleep due to post-prandial somnolence.  Fasting will help you to focus in that, despite having closed your eyes, you won’t be falling asleep.

Secondly, think for a moment how much our time is spent thinking/worrying about food or food related things.  It is no SNS if there is no picture of food on facebook, twitter and Instagram.  Two of the most common new year’s resolutions but also two of the quickest dropped or failed resolutions are exercising AND dieting.  Why?  It is because one of the most intrinsic, foundational and instinctive pleasures that people crave is pleasure AND gift of “eating”.  As such, our fasting means we are not wasting our time anticipating our lunch times at school any more.  Our fasting means our minds are freed of worrying about dinner and its caloric count and its tastiness.   For those of you whose dinner is provided for you (as I imagine most of you are), your mind is readily less occupied since you can skip your meal – you don’t have to anticipate the dinner time or what your mom or dad is making would be pleasing to your taste buds or whether they know the fact that you are on a strict diet.  For those of you who need to either provide for yourself OR your family, fasting can eliminate that “worry” – “Oh goodness, what’s for dinner… what am I going to make?”  Having to come up with a dinner idea is a huge stress in itself but once you have an idea (even if it’s as simple as rice and kimchi) you have to concern yourself about shopping for groceries, how to make, how much to make, “Will my family like it?”  “Will I like it?” etc etc.

All this means that one of the most intrinsic, and therefore most powerful, obsession and worries are removed from our lives by going on fasting.  Fasting is never an end in itself. It is dedicated and directed to God and is accompanied with prayer.  By having the most powerful obsessions and concerns removed from our minds, we are freer to focus on God in prayer.

2:  Secondly, let’s come back to verse 5 of today’s passage:

‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?

Fasting without God in mind only angers God.  What about mourning?  How is fasting related to mourning?  To be sure, mourning without fasting does not anger God but there is a sense of appropriateness in fasting when we are faced with threats, dangers, tragedies and/or serious situations.  There are two main occasions for fasting in the scriptures:

  1. Repentance as people are made aware of their sin
    1. King of Assyria in Nineveh declared national fasting when Jonah preached to them about their sins and violent ways
    2. King Ahab upon Elijah’s confrontation fasted (1 Kings 21:27-29)
    3. Daniel confessing the sins of his nation (Israel) fasted (Da. 9:3-6, 19)
  2. Pleading with God for help in the awake of calamities: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

So where is all this going?  There is a disconnect between enjoyment of lavishing food and deep sorrow.   People may eat during those times for health reasons but there is something odd about eating so lavishly when calamity is upon them.

Fasting, then, is an activity suited for the occasion that emphasizes our earnestness before God.  That is to say fasting has an element of dependence and confession of helplessness before God.

I have to stress again that fasting is never an end in itself and it must be accompanied by prayer.  One time, my friend’s father was very ill and was on the verge of dying and he prayed that if his father is spared of death then he will give up eating beef.  Now think about this for a moment with me.  If anything, is it the act of not eating beef that saved his father? Or is it the power of God that saved his father?  If your answer is “because he gave up beef, his father is spared”, I have another question.  “What is my not eating beef or any other food item to God that God would spare another human being?”  As in, what is such a big deal about my not eating beef?  It’s not like God is so crazy about beef that God is competing for the supply of beef.  It isn’t a big deal that we give up food but the idea is that when the occasion is so desperate and so dire that we even skip meals to pray before God, it will show our earnestness and it indeed shows our honouring of occasion.  I bet no one here will act all playfully at someone’s funeral.  Just as there is appropriate behaviours when serious occasions arise, fasting just might be the “right” spiritual activity when calamity or serious situations strike our lives.

3:

The most number of days I have fasted was three days and it was for a friend whose life was about to put out because he caught SARS and I was joined by many other faithful Christians who genuinely petitioned before God for our friend’s life.  Not that number of days really matters or that number of people on fasting matters but if the situation is THAT serious then it is also natural that we just might have to approach God’s throne with appropriate level of fasting.  God commands us in Joel 2:12:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

We cannot forget that what God wants to see is the returning of heart to Him during fasting but we cannot ignore the fact that fasting IS God given command.  After all, Jesus fasted for 40 days after he received confirmation from heaven that he IS indeed the messiah who will have to bear THE Cross.

Therefore, if there are serious events or if you feel that you have drifted away from God or any other occasions arise in your life that you need assurance from God, consider fasting.  When fasting is accompanied by prayer and if you are genuine in your seeking of God’s presence, God will be pleased with your dedication.

I am not guaranteeing that you will get what you wish for like from a genie as a result of your fasting but at least God will be honoured and pleased in his answer to your prayer and you are proven obedient to the command given through prophet Joel “return to me with all your heart”.

Korea, Gospel and March 1st Independence movement

대한민국

On March 1st, 1919 3PM at Pagoda Park in Seoul Korea, a student name Jae-yong Jung read aloud Korean Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that Korea has the right to exist as a free and independent nation from Japan’s colonization which lasted from 1910 to 1945.  That student was reading a document written and signed by 33 Korean National representatives.   The signers’ names are:

Son Pyung-hi, Kil Sun Chu, Yi Pil Chu, Paik Yong Sung, Kim Won Kyu, Kim Pyung Cho, Kim Chang Choon, Kwon Dong Chin, Kwon Byung Duk, Na Yong Whan, Na In Hup, Yang Chun Paik, Yang Han Mook, Lew Yer Dai, Yi Kop Sung, Yi Mung Yong, Yi Seung Hoon, Yi Chong Hoon, Yi Chong Il, Lim Yei Whan, Pak Choon Seung, Pak Hi Do, Pak Tong Wan, Sin Hong Sik, Sin Suk Ku, Oh Sei Chang, Oh Wha Young, Chung Choon Su, Choi Sung Mo, Choi In, Han Yong Woon, Hong Byung Ki, Hong Ki Cho.

Of the 33 signers, 16 were Christians.  According to “Christianity in Korea” by Robert E. Buswell, the number of Christians arrested during the march 1st, 1919 Korean Independence movement were:  Presbyterians 1461; Methodists 465; Roman Catholics 57; Others 207.  Less than four months later, the number of Presbyterians in jail had increased to 3,804, among them were 134 pastors and elders.

These are stunning figures as History of Christianity in Korea was not long at this point.  Korea boasts 5000 years of history and  became  self-evangelized only in 1784 AD when Seunghoon Lee, a Korean diplomat returned from China baptized and with various theological texts written by an Italian Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci.  Upon his arrival he established a small church in Myungdong, part of Seoul which now is the site of MyungDong Cathedral, and Christianity began spreading from that small seed without any western or external missionary’s aid (not until first Roman Catholic missionary arrived in 1836 and written/translated bible were handed out in 1863 by a protestant missionary).

The persecution of Christians by the Korean government began in 1785 officially outlawing Christianity.  It saw Christianity as a threat to the existing power structure since Christianity preached that all are equal before God.  The persecutions of 1801, 1839, 1846 and 1866 led to the death of 10,000 Christian martyrs, including the execution of Andrew Taegun Kim in 1846 who was the first native Korean Christian priest in Korea.

Despite all these, Christianity not only survived but thrived in Korea partly because of its involvement in Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonization and the recovery effort from civil war (1950 – 1953) which saw the country divided north and south.  Christianity in Korea embraced many socially radical ideas at the time such as teaching and using Hangul as written communication method (to that point Chinese characters were used as official written communication system),  teaching Hangul to kids and women, starting women’s bible study groups, establishing Universities and hospitals around the country.

Church is no church if it abandons the gospel in order to conform itself to the government ideology (think of National church of Germany that embraced Nazism and in doing so ignored/suppressed large part of the Gospel) but it is also no church that turns blind eye to the national crisis that under minds human rights.  Christians and Missionaries in Korea were significant part of Korean Independence movement and their efforts to liberate Korea contributed to the exponential growth of Christian population in it.

Many Koreans and Korean-Canadians are here in Canada enjoying all of its blessings including great social security and health care systems but without the martyrs of the past, who saw the relevance of Christian Gospel to the Korean National crisis, none of us would be here.  (Most of the martyrs mentioned here are Koreans but I wish to also acknowledge the non-Korean martyrs – especially missionaries –  during the Japanese colonization and Civil war period of Korean history)    On March 1st,, Korea remembers and honours patriotic Koreans and foreigners who gave their lives for the freedom of you and me.  Please take some time to give prayer of thanksgiving for them.

(Sermon) Me? An example? Really? Yes you. Really. An example…

imgresDate: January 20, 2013

Title: “Me? An example? Really? Yes you. Really. An example”

Scripture: 1 Peter 5:1-4

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

There are things in life that you just won’t believe unless you see them with your eyes.  You hear about it on the news and you hear people talk about it but unless you see the video footage of it, you just don’t make the connection.

As an example, some guy named Felix Baumgartner jumped off from the edge of the space and broke the highest free fall record.  They shuttled him up there in a balloon and once he reached 127,000 feet in the air (that’s 38,709.6 metres and CN tower formerly tallest structure is measured at 553 metres. You stack up 70 CN towers and that’s where that human being jumped.)  Once the balloon reached 127,000 feet, Baumgartner stepped out to the platform and before he jumped he said this:

I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to see how small you are. I’m going home now.

Hearing the news, I just couldn’t relate to what he was talking about but when I saw the photo of him stepping out onto the jumping platform and the earth as its background, I was finally able to relate, somewhat, to his experience.  When he said it was an awesome experience, I wasn’t able to imagine or picture the experience myself but once a photo was shown, I began to make sense of his experience and felt as if I saw what he saw.

Another example, back in the 80s a German company began making and selling what’s known as Rubik’s cube.  It was a sensational hit but believe or not, many people actually believed that once it was mixed or scrambled, it was impossible to restore it back to original state.  Eventually there were books written about it and they even had competitions to see who can solve the cube fastest but we have to note that people actually thought that it was a myth that a person can actually solve a scrambled cube into original state until they saw it in front of their eyes.

The point is this, in this visually driven culture, sometimes one picture replaces thousand words.  That’s just how we grew up and that’s how we often judge the credibility of a news – by being able to see it or witness it somehow.

In today’s scripture, Peter says in his letter “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be;” and again in verse 3 “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”.  Peter appreciated the value of examples – that very thing that people can look at and see an example of godly and holy person.  In the face of exploitive and greed driven culture, it is highly encouraging for all believers to be able to witness a person who does not weaver by self-serving greed but the walk the path of biblical principle.

When people are told that they need to lead by example or they need to be a good example, usually they feel a lot of pressure, thinking that they now need to be saving human lives every other minute.  But what people have forgotten is the art of being an everyday hero.  A hero of the ordinary and a hero of small steps.  Let me explain what I mean using a personal experience during my University days.

While I was in a discipleship group in 1996 at University of Toronto through the campus ministry called KCF (Korean Christian Fellowship), we had a member who was part of a Christian monitoring group.  That group’s function was to monitor the news and events in Toronto and alerts churches and parachurches of any alarming news that they must be aware of and/or pray for.  One of the news we were notified of was Marilyn Manson concert in University of Toronto’s venue (varsity arena).  (Marilyn Manson is world famous anti-christian recording artist whose hatred for Christian churches is well documented)

Many turned up for the event and while we were walking towards the entrance of the arena I happened to see a friend of mine lined up to get into the concert – imagine my shock.  When I got to the front, what I witnessed was two ladies who were holding up signs (specificity of the message escapes my memory but I do remember one sentence “Sweet blood of Jesus forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”).  Many who lined up to get into the concert were upset with the ladies for their message and some of them even went right up to their face and screamed and yelled at them.  The poor ladies were so scared of big guys who challenged them as if they were going to hit the ladies.  One lady began praying in tongue and of course it was the subject of laughter of the spectators.

Then I witnessed these “Christian” men who were sitting by the ladies and they weren’t doing anything to relieve the tension or to come to the aid of the ladies.  I watched the scene for five long minutes.  My eyes moved from the coward men and the ladies who kept on taking vicious verbal abuse from the spectators.  Then I prayed for the courage as I, myself, was not ready to take up a sign – I’ve never done anything like that before!  Then I saw enough and I went up to the ladies and I asked for one of the poster signs and fortunately one of the ladies had two signs so she gave me one.

As soon as I took up a sign and held it high, there was murmuring amongst the crowd and I could hear “look, there is *another* one” from them.  One of the guys who was hurling verbal abuse at these ladies saw me and we made eye contact and I could tell that while being discontent, he did not want to approach the line any more.  Many hurled insults at three of us but none dared to approach the way they did before I became part of the line.

Then after a while longer, the crowd started moving into the area and that’s when I saw the most shocking scene of the event.  While I was looking at the crowd going into the Marilyn Mason concert in 1996, I could not help wondering what will happen to the kids and infants who were being “led” into the concert.  I’m not going to turn a blind eye and say Marilyn Manson had no valid criticism of Christianity but his message is largely driven by his emotional response of “hatred”.  When kids are exposed to that much hatred against certain group of people believing in certain kind of doctrine (as in, Christians believing in loving God who sacrificed himself in reconciliation), it is hard for me to imagine those kids growing up to be “loving” and contributing members of society.  Maybe some has turned up just fine by some miracle but every early childhood educator will tell you that exposure to that kind of hatred is not good for a child.  And these kids’ parents couldn’t even serve as an everyday hero and failed to provide decent examples for their kids.

Wherever I serve, I have this vision.  It’s not really a “vision” like the ones that Joseph the dream interpreter of the OT received but these are the principles that I would like to see flourish.

First of all, I would like to see a community where Christians are shaped by the Word and led by examples.  What kind of examples?  Those of everyday heroes.  You think it is easy for your parents to get up every morning and go to work – Not so.  The dollars that you enjoy in your pockets that come from your parents represent they sweat and sometimes even blood that they had to pay.  As for you University students, even just being at church attending the service can be a great example to the younger ones.

I had trained judo for 5 years.  I am now black belt and I am called sensei every dojo I go to.  One thing that my dojo asked me to do was to show up at kids’ classes once in a while.  They told me that even if I’m not teaching them, the kids who watch the big guys practice gives them inspirations.  They see the fine examples of judo and want to become like the big guys that they see.  So they said “just show up” – it will mean a lot to other senseis.

I understand that some of you are in awkward distance like Hamilton.  Not quite far away and not quite near but an everyday hero’s example is that even if you have hardest week coming up with all the assignments and tests due, you still show up at church to offer your worship to God.  THAT is being an everyday hero.  And isn’t that about thousand times better than people leading their kids into Marilyn Manson concert?  Sometimes, we neglect the importance of the little things.  Little things like showing up at church because you just cannot compromise your commitment to God.  Little things like taking care of smallest things in the church that no one likes to do – like cleaning the window blinds that haven’t been cleaned in many years.  Little things like actually having a clear direction in life that people can feel that you are driven by a purpose.  There are other little (but not actually little) things like doing well in school and actually enjoy reading the scriptures.

The kids who were being led into the Marilyn Manson concert must be now anywhere in between 18-25. Some of you would be in compatible age as they are and how I wish I could reach out to some of them and find out whether they know the Loving God that they can have in their life.  Those kids had the example of living holiness robbed from them.  Apostle Peter says, “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”, we have many youths who have no other choice but look at you to figure out how to live.  Please do not rob the everyday example of holy living from them by not living it or by not showing up.

Secondly, I also dream a vision that this becomes a place where “lost” souls can find their belonging place.  In the 2nd half of verse two, Apostle Peter says “not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve”.  That dishonest gain can also be understood as “selfish gain” since “eager to serve” is proposed as the opposing action (what is opposite of “serving”? – being selfish).

Often churches neglect the people who need us the most.  Many churches who weren’t able to see growth in membership often suffer not from lack of spirituality but lack of relational and social care.  What do I mean by that?  Well, what do new comers need when they come to a new place?  They need hospitality of existing members.

You all feel little awkward, uncomfortable and even embarrassed when you go to a place where you know no one.  When you are standing at a corner awkwardly, there appears that church member who simply comes to you to welcome you to the church and carries on a light conversation with you – an everyday hero, hero of the ordinary.  It may not seem like much but it has life healing force to the one who, otherwise, had to stand there awkwardly.

I would like nothing less than a community where “comfort” of Jesus Christ becomes real.  We all have had hard times in high schools or Universities.  Everyone needs comfort and a place to belong.  When Apostle Peter encourages his listeners to be “not pursuing dishonest gain but eager to serve”, let’s think of nothing less than giving up little bit of our time and comfort to approach the ones who need our time and attention.

As I conclude, I only have one thing to add.  I always appreciated real human presence.  Please be here as often as you can.  You can only be an everyday hero to your younger ones, when you are actually here.  We can hear about Felix Baumgartner jumping off from the edge of the space but nothing was more descriptive than that one photo that we were able to see.  Nothing replaces your presences here in the church.  So consider giving up your gain in order for your “presence” to serve others – that’s the St. Peter’s exhortation.

(Sermon) Immanuel – God with us

IMMANUEL

Scripture: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25;

Title: Immanuel – God with us

(Isaiah 7:14)

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you[a] a sign: The virgin[b] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[c] will call him Immanuel.

(Matthew 1:18-25)

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Introduction:

Who here is done with their Christmas shopping?  Christmas is just around the corner and maybe some of you cannot wait until you do your gift exchange that will happen later on today.  Maybe some of you have fun plans with family and maybe some of you have trips planned or something.  But also for some people, this is the time we feel the loneliest.  It seems odd since Christmas is supposed to represent the highlight of the holiday season when everything is forgivable and everything is joyful but it does leave some people with extreme loneliness.

For example, I have seen many visa students who are here alone experience extreme loneliness and boredom especially around Christmas time since it’s cold and too expensive to go away somewhere warm.

For some others who may be under unfortunate circumstance of being homeless may not welcome the holiday and Christmas spirit since life is just little bit too tough for them and cannot get into the “spirit” by being involved in a gift exchange and such.

And for some others, there just may be some relational issues that lead to loneliness around the holiday time.  Just because one is in relationship (whether marriage or dating), it does not mean that he/she does not feel loneliness.  When the “feeling” is gone and when there is emotional tension due to fights etc, Christmas may not mean anything to people who are not committed to making relationship joyful and happy.  It is just another day that they need to go through and “jingle bells” and “oh-what-funs” are just part of lyric of some song they hear often – which is to say meaningless.

There are times though when the loneliness is felt as part of God’s design.  17th century French Philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it correctly:

“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus”

Jesus often spent many hours away from the crowds so that he can spend that time in prayer.  Jesus was a people person but when the time came and when it was needed, he withdrew from them and spent the time with the Father in intimate prayer.  Jesus also needed to address the God shaped vacuum.

But this is interesting.  Jesus having God shaped vacuum too?  If Jesus is God then why would he have that God shaped vacuum?  It has all to do with the word “Immanuel”.

Point 1:

Immanuel is spoken by the Prophet Isaiah but it is no secret that from Genesis to Revelations, it is always God who approaches his people FIRST.  If someone is a terrible rush to leave your presence and you need to summarize the bible or at least pitch the concept of it, just tell them this much – Immanuel.  God with us.  Throughout the bible, the story is that God always initiated the first move to let us know that we are loved despite his “supposed” people constantly betraying him and causing him heart and headaches.

In today’s scripture Jesus is called by two names.  Immanuel and Jesus.  Jesus is a short form for Joshua and it means “the Lord is Salvation”.  Simply put – Jesus will save.  The nation that was supposed to be that attractive example to the surrounding nations has disobeyed their way into national collapse.  A surer answer had to be found and there came along Jesus of Nazareth who became THE genuine human dialogical partner to God.

You guys know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham was pleading with the three men (angels) sent by God to destroy the wicked cities.  Abraham started his bargaining with the angels to see if Sodom (where Abraham’s Nephew Lot lived) can be spared.  He begins the righteous men count with fifty.  He says if there are fifty righteous people, would you please spare the city?  The angel says yes.  Abraham brings down the count to forty five and the angel says yes the city will be spared.  Abraham brought the count all the way down to ten and angel still said the city will be spared.  On the account of TEN!

Now if we move the clock forward a little bit, we can see how Jesus’ case is more incredible.  The promise to Abraham was “Through your seed, all nations will be blessed”.  It only took one man whose obedience was thorough and complete, to take away the sin of all people – a blessing to all nations.  We only need to believe in faith that Jesus indeed saves.

Point 2:

Then Immanuel is how Jesus is going to do this.  Immanuel – God with us.  God took a human form and throughout the Older Testament, we see God appearing in supernatural phenomenon – whether it is massive cloud or fire, etc.  But Immanuel tells us that God came to us as one of us – taking on our weaknesses, limitations and putting himself into the corner called “being human” just so that he can overcome our limitations.  Hebrews 4:15 says,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Then there is another element to the “Immanuel – God with us.”  It is that God came to us to “be” with us.  Yes, he came to save!  But he also came to “BE” with us.

I happen to think that Jesus was a very happy fella – He loved people.  He spent a lot of time with God the Father but if you read through the Gospels, Jesus is found to be with people all the time.  He is found at festivities like weddings.  He is always with his disciples, travelling and he never really minded the crowds the gathered around him.  In fact, Jesus had great heart for them. Matthew 9:36 says,

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36)

In another translation it says:

When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

If you also notice the way Jesus performed the miracles… Did you ever wonder why Jesus did so many physical things to work the spiritual power?  It wasn’t that Jesus spoke to the crowd and all of a sudden they all received healing.  But it is mostly that Jesus had to “see” the wounded, crippled, lame and blinded one-on-one.  As if to tell us that very personal touch of the personal salvation story.

That two fold meaning – God with us in the sense of God becoming human and God with us to “be” with us and act among us is the meaning of Immanuel.

Conclusion:

So how do all these explanations affect us today?  I think as we approach Christmas we can do some soul searching to see whether we or others are lonely and for what reason we or others would be lonely.  There are few things you can do:

  1. If you are lonely because of the God shaped vacuum, then invite Jesus into your heart and pray that you may be satisfied with his love and his love only.
  2. Instead of saying “Happy Birthday Jesus” how about we change that to “Thanks for coming to be with us”.  Just so we can also appreciate the notion of Immanuel – God with us.  Not just celebrate his birth but also what it represented.
  3. We can search for others who need Jesus’ love if they are also suffering from God shaped vacuum and share the story of Immanuel.  After all, even Jesus had this vacuum because he was human.  This is to say all human beings have this vacuum and therefore everyone needs Jesus.
  4. We can also search for others and service them if they suffer not from God shaped vacuum but from human shaped vacuum that YOU can address.  In the beginning, I mentioned visa students, folks in the retirement homes (like some grandparents) and people on the streets.  Why not commit to one of these groups of people and share God’s love through you loving them?

Few years ago, I ended up working 10 hours on Christmas day and 11 hours on Boxing Day.  It was depressing and sad.  In a tiny office on a very uncomfortable chair with my kimbap and coke as my lunch and dinner.

But it was not so sad because I lost out from all the holiday fun or just being so nerdy but it was very sad because by focusing so much on work, I forgot to appreciate those around me and especially Jesus.  But this Christmas, let’s put extra effort so that we can genuinely appreciate the occasion so that it may not be all about the gifts and turkeys but about whom it truly belong – our Lord Jesus Christ who is also known as Immanuel.

(Sermon) Safety Distance

Image

(Illustration by Paula J. Becker from http://paulabecker.com/blog/?p=450)

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

My sister has a cat named “Snowball”.  It is a white Persian cat that my sister and her husband bought  while snowball was a small kitten.  I still remember the first time I met snowball.  She was a small little furry creature that rolled up into a ball.  I needed to look at the rolled up furry creature to see that it was a kitten.  Snowball and I played “rolling the ball” with a rolled up tinfoil and when we were done she crawled up to my chest to sleep on it in a superman position on her back – she was an incredibly cute kitten.  I knew she might grow to be a snob but while she was a kitten she was cute.  Then came along a dog named truffles.  Truffles was mix between Maltese and Yorkshire terrier and  even cuter because of her affectionate personality!  My sister and her husband planned to raise the two together but it caused a bit of trauma for the cat.

The dog was always friendly and wanted to be touched, hugged and kissed and she often jumped onto one of our laps to cuddle with us.  Snowball the cat had such strong pride that she would  not come to anyone on her own.  Whenever the family was sitting down and watching the TV together with the dog in someone’s arms, the cat would keep her distance (like 5-10 mitres away) and just observe the whole scene.  When we chased after her to bring her near to the family, she’d always run away and returned to the same observation spot when we gave up the chase.  Did she feel neglected? Of Course.  Did she want to be closer to the community called family? Most definitely.

Did she have the courage to open up to the family who seemed to “prefer” the dog?  Now that’s the interesting question.  And we find ourselves asking the same question while listening to Zacchaeus’ story.   Zacchaeus the chief tax collector was probably one of the wealthiest Jew in the region but also the most hated and isolated because of his tax collecting practices where he over taxed people in order to add to his riches.

He was intrigued enough that he will come to hear Jesus speak but  afraid enough that he kept his distance at a tree perch.  Did he have the courage?  Let’s answer that in a minute but first a professor of mine describes the scene beautifully.  Listen to this:

… (Zacchaeus) He had heard much about Jesus, found himself intrigued, and decided he had to see Jesus for himself. The tree-perch was the perfect place for him. he would be close enough to see Jesus for himself, yet far enough away to be out of reach; close enough to “get a line on” Jesus, distant enough to be safe.  Curious he was; committed he was not. He didn’t want to be hassled or embarrassed in any way.  The tree-perch was perfect.” (Ponder and Pray by Dr. Victor Shepherd. pg 44)

Don’t we all find ourselves being in the same boat as Zacchaeus?  All too often we find the safety distance to be all too comfortable.  All too often we find that tree perch to be our shield and our protector.  We love our tree perches of all types and shapes but there is a gotcha here.  While the tree perch represents safety distance, it also represents distance in intimacy.  As in, while that distance surely protects us from embarrassment, hassle and possible exposure, it also prevents us from becoming intimate with the one who gives life and lightens our burden.  All the blessings that Jesus has in store for us, cannot be ours until we are done away with the safety distance and gain the intimate closeness.

All this to say, just merely being curious about Jesus will not cut it in our lives – the tree perch is comfortable but we cannot stay there.  It can be a self-imposed trap and self-imposed prison.  Just like my sister’s family who started to wrongly suspect that perhaps snowball the cat needed to be left alone to figure out the life with a dog on her own, when the truth was that snowball  needed to be loved and she craved the attention from us.

So how DO we come down from the tree perch and gain that intimacy closeness that Jesus’ blessing can be ours?  We can examine Zacchaeus’ story learn few things:

(1) First, in Zacchaeus’ case, he showed up to listen to Jesus.  He heard about Jesus through strangers and from the words of mouths but they were not good enough for him.  And even though he wanted that safety distance, he must have desired an encounter.  It is entirely possible that he was getting  tired of tax collecting practice and being completely isolated and alone in the Jewish community. He may have sincerely desired to see the Messiah.  That’s what Jesus saw – Zacchaeus’ timid heart that needed an encouragement and encounter.  When Zacchaeus showed up to listen, Jesus decided to reach out and ever-so-gently says “Let’s go to your place for dinner”.

Does obedience not start from listening?  What or whom are we going to obey? What instructs our actions?  Unless we listen to God, how else are we to figure out what it is that we are going to obey?  I know time is precious but we have to put our life and sitcoms on a pause in order to listen to God.  Just as Zacchaeus was able to “hang” and “chill” with Jesus as he showed up to listen, we also shall encounter God richly if we just take that time to “show up” at Quiet Times and devotions to “Listen” to God.

(2) Secondly, we need to see the sequence of events.  Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house and then Zacchaeus says this:

Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.

Why is Zacchaeus, all of a sudden, giving away his wealth?  Certainly he knew what Jesus’ message was – Love God and love your neighbor (and as its implication “help the poor”).  Surely Pharisees did not teach that!  They were too busy playing religion!  Romans did not teach it since they were too busy exploiting and extorting the Jews!  It was Jesus’ teaching that Zacchaeus was aware of all that time.  It was simply the case that he did not accept Jesus’ teaching and therefore his authority up until the point of encounter.

Jesus’ visitation finally provided an occasion for Zacchaeus to recognize and accept Jesus’ teaching as THE authoritative teaching in his life – to which Jesus declared there is a believer in that house!

Without first submitting (which is to be distinguished from “come to” Jesus – Jesus has already come to us FIRST!) to Him and recognize His authority over you, there will not be an intimate life with Jesus.  That is to say there will forever be a safety distance between you and God and you will forever remain on your tree perch. Safe you might be but saved you will never be.

I ran into religious fanatics many times in my life and every time I run into street evangelists, I always had an immediate turn off reaction towards them.  I have not met a single street evangelist who appeared gentle, loving and I never received that warmth that I receive whenever I think about My Lord Jesus Christ.  But you know what?  To this day, I have not met a single evangelist whose message was wrong.  They all had the right message!!  Even as they were screaming “YOU ARE ALL GUNNA DIE!!!” they were right.  I AM going to die someday.  They also screamed “YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!!!” they were right.  I was going to Hell until my Lord saved me.

They didn’t have the wrong message.  In fact, they were quite right.  But I laughed off and walked away simply because I did not recognize their authority and resisted it due to their awful invitation.

Jesus’ invitation is different.  He says in Matthew 11:28-30

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is one of the warmest invitations you will ever see in the scriptures.  In fact, if Jesus rebuked Zacchaeus to come down from the tree perch, he may have remained there still but it was a warm invitation that brought him down.  Luther once said, “To know Christ means to know his benefits.” Recognize that Jesus’ invitation is warm, his yoke is light and wants to bless us with his companionship.  Zacchaeus certainly recognized and submitted to Jesus to obtain more than he gave away.

(3) Third and lastly, there might be times when we feel like God is no longer speaking to us and God has hidden his face from us.  Of course God does not abandon us but it is common among all believers that they feel this way time to time in their lives.

In Zacchaeus’ case, he said he will not cheat anybody.  In fact, , he’d pay back four times of what he had cheated.  For tax collectors at that time, unless they extort Jews more than what they were required to submit to the Roman government, they cannot make living.  Their riches depend on their extorting of fellow Jews!  So if he decides that he will cheat no more, he will have to start generating honest income.

At that point Zacchaeus clings onto the providing grace of God.  Just as Zacchaeus did, we also cling as we gain that intimacy closeness.  We cling onto Jesus Christ ever so tight and we cling onto him as if our lives are on the line.  If you have gone to rock climbing and the only thing that’s keeping you alive is that rope that you are holding onto, wouldn’t that grip be tight?  We cling the same way.  Even when we think the speaking voice is gone and his presence is dim, we cling onto his presence because apart from him there is no hope.

There is a very dramatic moment in the Gospels.  Listen to the story of this blind man.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

 38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

   “Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.(Luke 18:35-43)

When the blind man shouted all the more, how do you think he shouted?  We need to keep in mind that ever since Jesus started performing miracles, there were huge crowds following after him.  For a single man to be shouting over a sizable crowd enough so that he can be a nuisance, can only mean that he must have been really loud – loud enough to be outshouting the large crowd following Jesus and did it over again and again and again.  That’s what it means to cling onto Jesus.  It means we cling to Jesus with a sense of desperation.

Furthermore, while you are clinging onto God, it doesn’t need to look all too pretty – even though we like to appear cool and “no sweat” under toughest situations.  God called us to finish the race, not to finish at the top.  You just need to somehow find a way to obey Him and tough it out.  All you guys know I work out and train martial arts and stuff.  Time to time I train with a trainer and my trainer tells me to lift something that is beyond reasonable.  I work out with 225lbs on bench press and all of a sudden he loads up 275 lbs and tells me to lift it 12 times.  I try my greatest but there is just no way I’d lift 12 reps on my own.  Somehow with his help, I get to the 12th rep, I am dead tired and he might be lifting more than I am on that last repetition.  But how do you think my face will look at that time?  I am the hideous creature that no one wants to look at.  But it does not matter, what mattered was that I completed my set.  That was the whole point.  Again, God told us to finish the race.  When the obedience becomes tough, we just somehow need to find a way to obey and tough one out.

The early church document has it that Zacchaeus became the first bishop of Caesarea.  Zacchaeus must have faced “going gets tough” situation in his life after leaving the riches behind.  He then also must have had to “cling” onto Jesus as if his life depended on it.

When it comes to obeying God, obey him gladly and joyfully.  When the joy is gone, obey him nonetheless.  When that motivation is gone obey him still. When you simply don’t feel like it any more, obey him some more anyways.  That’s the way of disciple and that’s the way of people who has encountered God in such closeness and enjoyed his presence “knowing” that he is there (even if she does not “feel” it).

In the beginning I asked whether Zacchaeus had the courage.  Well, it wasn’t courage to be sitting on a tree perch but it became courage when he accepted Jesus’ invitation to transform his life.  If you are comfortable on your tree perch, in the sense of “curious you are but committed you are not”, I invite you to think about Jesus’ invitation once again in your life.  Jesus says to you “Come all you who are weary and thirsty.”  He is the one with many benefits and blessings, which can only be yours through close intimacy and not from safety distance.  Come down from the tree perch and dine with him.

(Sermon) Love the Lord with your mind pt. 1

Scripture: (Matthew 13:3-8; Matthew 13:18-19)

(Matthew 13:3-8)

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

(Matthew 13:18-19)

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path

Introduction

There was an incident in high school when I was helping a Korean student who only spent couple of years in Canada at the time.  During the class time of computer science class we were taking, he would more-often-than-not ask for translation.  One time teacher asked class a simple question and while the students all took turn to help answering the question, my friend asked what the question was.  I provided Korean translation of the question from what I thought I had heard.  When it was his turn, my friend provided, what seemed, a faithful answer to the question.  But when I saw the look of bewilderment on everyone else’s face, a terrifying feeling shot down my spine and soon after that my fear became reality: my translation was wrong.  With the misrepresentation of the teacher’s question, my friend was not given an opportunity to provide a right answer.

Of course, I would do the right thing and I notified the teacher that I had provided wrong translation of the question but my teacher pointed out (even as he realized wrong translation) that my friend really should have come equipped to understand the question on his own.

Whose fault was it?  It is true that my friend really should have come with the ability to understand the lectures and assignments on his own and therefore it ultimately was his responsibility but I was not completely guilty free either.  Especially in wake of the fact that the teacher asked my friend to remove himself from the class after that incident since he determined that my friend’s English skill level was just not adequate to keep up with the rest of the class.

As we reflect on the parable of the sower, we cannot help wondering what Jesus means by “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.” (Matthew 13:19).  In what sense, shall we understand the word “understand” and what kind of impact would it have on Jesus’ message?  Is Jesus talking about people who have heard the Word of God soundly, truthfully, uprightly and intelligibly but decided that it is not reasonable due to their preconceived notion of God or righteousness (in this case it is a voluntary rejection of the Gospel) OR is Jesus talking about people who only hear and see misrepresentation of the Gospel which is no more than an insult to their intelligence and hypocrisy (in this case it is an involuntary rejection)?

Just as I had misrepresented the computer science teacher’s question to my friend which led to his wrong answer, can a Christian’s misrepresentation of the Gospel (either case of testimony of words and/or actions) lead to another’s rejection of it entirely?  And how does the word “understand” in verse 19 help us identify which one?

Point 1

For the first point, think of the farmer who threw the seed in the path.  A good farmer spreads his seeds carefully and by the act of sowing the seeds along the path where a seed does not have a chance to grow, he is no longer a good farmer.  If you think that a farmer who, by mistake, scatters the seeds along the path is simply clumsy and it’s really unimportant, think about this — in many cases the seeds that farmers sow to grow the crop are edible.  In the parable of sower, even though Jesus does not specify exactly what kind of seed the farmer sowed but considering following short list of edible seeds, we should keep in mind a definite possibility of Jesus talking about edible seeds.  The edible seeds in a limited list are:

For Cereals: Barley, Maize (corn), Oats, Rice,Rye, Wheat, Wild rice

For Beans:   Chickpeas, Cowpeas, Black eyed pea, Dry beans, lentil, Peanuts, Pigeon peas, Velvet beans, Winged beans, Yam beans, Soybeans

For Nuts:Almond,Brazil nut, Cashew, (Chestnuts, including: Chinese Chestnut, Sweet Chestnut), (Hickory, including Pecan, Shagbark Hickory), Hazelnut, Macadamia, Malabar chestnut, Pistacia, Walnut, Black Walnut

In the case of these seeds, if they are not used to create crops, then they can be consumed as food. If we imagine this only in North American context of 2012, we might fail to understand the devastating significance so let me help you imagine this better by framing it in the society 2000 years ago.

We are very fortunate in Canada because even if we do not and our parents do not have a dollar in our pockets, there are *some* ways to feed ourselves because of the social services like welfares are available through government programs.  And government of Canada collects what is known as EI.  When someone gets a payment from work, typically there are three types of deductions that appear.  Income tax (federal and provincial), CPP (pension plan claimable after 65 upon retirement) and EI (Employment Insurance).  EI is a form of savings that government of Canada collects while one is at work.  Upon the unfortunate case of unemployment, it becomes the unemployeed person’s right to claim the EI (even though there are conditions and time limits attached) from the government.

But during Jesus’ days, there was no such thing as Employment Insurance and if their neighbors or the rich person in the village cannot help then starvation or  begging off the streets were very realistic option (which, by the way, is the reality of many cities and countries today).  So given a bag of edible seeds and a hungry family, a farmer is left with two choices:  1. save it for following year’s farming so that, according to Jesus’ paraphrasing, he can grow a hundred, sixty or thirty times than that which were sown.  In this case, a farmer is “investing” the seeds for future benefit 2. Address the immediate need and feed the family.  Either case, there is a significant degree of sacrifice.  With the former, a farmer may provide possibility of prosperity in the near future but it is not a guaranteed prosperity with the immediate hunger as its price.  With the latter, it addresses immediate needs but only with the future benefit as its price.  So a farmer who, even by mistake, throws some seeds over to the path where they have no opportunity to bear crop, commits an unforgivable act of extreme clumsiness since the seeds were being invested at the cost of his family’s hunger.

We can apply this understanding back to the parable.  In the parable, Jesus says “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart”. One might take the easy way out and claim “it’s their fault to not understand my message!” but in most cases one’s understanding can go only as far as another’s presentation of the subject of understanding.  Why do schools care so much about a teacher’s teaching skills?  In our school system, if an entire class fails an exam for example, do they not assess a teacher’s performance as well?  Yes, the students need to do their due diligence to ask questions and bug the teacher until she understands the problem at hand but is it not a duty of the teacher to lovingly and carefully prepare her lessons so that she can best communicate the lessons to her students?

The Greek word used to say “understand” is συνιέντος which is from its root word συνιημι. In English, the same word is also translated as “to put together, that is, (mentally) to comprehend”. Jesus often uses that word just before he taught people something (i.e. “listen and understand”).  When we spread God’s Word (that is to spread the Gospel), we are announcing the Gospel intelligibly so that the listeners are given, at least, the mental capacity to put together the story for themselves. What God does with such mental comprehension is entirely up to Him but according to the scripture, our duty is to make the announcement intelligibly.  If we make such clumsy representation as that no one understands intelligibly what we have witnessed to, then what benefit would it have for anyone or for God?

When Moses had gone up Mount Sinai, had wonderful time with God, received the Ten Commandments and come back down the mountain and told the people of Israel “I had such wonderful time with God but it was too wonderful that I cannot say anything to you”, his experience is useless to the rest of believers.  Because God had revealed himself to Moses intelligibly, Moses was able to communicate something about God intelligibly to Israel.  And since God revealed Himself concretely in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, WE can (and we better!) communicate something about God intelligibly as well.

So the first imagery of seeds that fell along the path regards also the planter (that is the believers), rather than just where it landed (that is the listener).  How ready are you to present the Gospel to the people who are curious about the Gospel?  Just the other day I had an opportunity to chat with an unbeliever about Christianity and answered some of his questions. If the same opportunity comes your way, how ready are you to present the case for Christ and make sure that the seeds will fall in the fields and not along the path where the seed is just useless and will be snatched away by the evil one? The parable notifies us that if we are to LOVE God, then we ought to put our minds at work and engage in biblical reflections so that there will not be wasted opportunities.

Point 2:

Secondly, think of the soil of the path in the imagery.  Today we read from the Gospel of Matthew and Matthew does not explain what good soil is but the same parable is in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke explains what the good soil is.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says “the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart.”  For now, let’s not consider ay further than this: Goodness of soil depends whether the heart is ready or not.

The power of the Gospel is not lost because of the unready heart but fruit of the Gospel may not be borne with the unready heart.  Many years ago I was watching a talk show where the host was interviewing  pro Naziists.  During the interview, to my surprise, the Naziist revealed that he reads the bible.  Then he said “well you have to know your enemy in order to destroy them”.  This man’s heart is already hard shut.  This man’s heart is not a good and fertile soil but dry and hardened roadside pavement where seeds do not stand much chance at germinating and grow.

When we approach the scripture or when we come to worship Jesus on Sundays, with what kind of heart do we come before His throne?  Is it just another Sunday with another boring message or do you come with the hope that you will grow closer to God and learn something about Him through the pastor and your Sunday school teachers?  Depending on what your heart expects, your heart can be a good and fertile soil that represents much moisture for God’s seed to begin taking its root OR it can be a hard paved roadside that rejects just about anything that is thrown at it.

So then “the seed that fell along the path” must be understood in two ways.  First, people can misrepresent it or teach the Gospel wrong because they do not study.  In that case the blame is on the one who is presenting the Gospel.  Second, even if the Gospel is presented truthfully and intelligently, the listener’s heart may be hardened with pride and his own ideas.  In that case, the blame is on the listener but only one thing is true of both cases.  In both cases, the evil one comes and takes away the word so that it does not bear fruit in the listener’s heart.

Conclusion:

So what do we do so that we do not misrepresent the Gospel? We do not have choice but we need to learn to love God with our minds.  You will hear pastors always telling you to read the scripture and pray.  We have to go back to those basics.  We need to study the scripture so that when the opportunity comes, we can present it intelligibly instead of blabbing all over the place.  John Calvin, commenting on 16th century preaching with the following harsh words: “stupid, ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves from the pulpit.”  Back then the bible was not personalized.  There were only few copies and they were entrusted only to certain members of the church.  Now the bible has been made personal in that we now all have a copy.  We, now, bear the responsibility to study for our own and make our presentation of the Gospels something that is not “blurting out of worthless brainwaves”.